Email and the Surveillance State

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Email and the Surveillance State

A friend recently asked me for advice on how to send his email securely. I had to ask what he meant by “secure.”

Did he mean a password-protected email account? Practically all email accounts are password-protected today, even Yahoo and Google, plus virtually every viable email app require password authentication for both sending and receiving email from a remote IMAP or POP mail server.

Did he mean encrypted email? Several applications and services support email encryption, including public key encryption. The tricky part is that you have to arrange the encryption key privately between you and your senders/receivers.

Did he mean that he wants his email to fly below the radar of local to global government surveillance? I am not sure if this is possible any more, sad to say.

Did he mean he want to secure his mailbox against spam? This kind of security means means never posting an email address anywhere online where it can be harvested, never buying anything online with the address (so it can never be harvested), and somehow miraculously preventing anyone from ever including the address in the “To” of Cc” fields of a bulk email instead of properly hiding all recipient addresses in the “Bcc” field.

Did he mean he want to secure his computer against email-carrying viruses and other malware ? Malware filters today can screen almost all of the junk at the mail server before it ever reaches us. We can install more malware filters on our computers once the junk mail arrives.

So, what exactly did he mean  when he sad, “secure”?

He replied that although he has nothing to hide, but he wants to avoid Big Brother snooping, just on principle, let alone avoid any risk of his innocent messages being misconstrued to mean something he did not intend.

His concern reflects a growing paranoia about government intrusion. Just because you are paranoid does not mean that nobody is watching you.

I replied to him with these words:

“Until the U.S. Congress clamps down on NSA and all the other alphabet soup spy agencies and imposes anything more than lip-service restrictions on their surveillance, you can be sure your local telephone company Internet service is part of the vacuum-cleaner data collection. You can be sure that the spy agencies are harvesting this email (because of the trigger words it contains) and virtually everything else we send.

“I agree that this practice violates our natural human rights and the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but not enough citizens are raising a big enough stink to curtail the violations.

“Meanwhile, I know of no private email services that 100 percent hides your data (see links below). If you want secure mail, bluntly, don’t use email. Use USPS, UPS, or FedEx, or a carrier pigeon perhaps? How about two tin cans connected by a string? Can you wait until you can talk to your friends in person?”

Not content to let the matter drop there, I did a bit of research on my friend’s behalf, and here I share my findings:

In the light of the Snowden revelations, who is the hunter, and who is the hunted?

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